The open source nature of WordPress makes for interesting bedfellows. Users of WordPress are given access to tons of tools, many of them free, and are put in direct contact with the developers that made them. There are no layers of bureaucracy and customer service in-between as you get with typical tech companies like Apple or Microsoft.
So you have scores of users used to the average business structure where if there’s a problem, there’s a number to call and someone to yell at, and these users are now interacting directly with developers who most of the time would rather just write code and not have to deal with customer support requests and the like. So there’s definitely plenty of opportunity for friction!
But it’s important for the long term development of the WordPress community and the sustainability of WordPress-centric businesses that these two groups come to a deeper understanding of each other.
For my part, I see and relate to both sides of the equation. I am a longtime WordPress user and these days I teach businesses and individuals how to use WordPress for their needs. I’ve also taught myself some WordPress development skills. So I work with both sides on a daily basis and at any given moment am operating in one of those roles.
You might consider this post a healthy dose of tough love for both sides of the community. Here’s where I think each could stand to improve.
Documentation of Themes & Plugins
Themes and plugins end up being the most prominent way in which users interact with WordPress. So if a user has a bad experience with your theme or plugin, they tend to conflate that with WordPress as a whole. So basically, if you do a poor job, people end up hating WordPress because of your theme ;). Clear, user-friendly documentation is key in making sure this doesn’t happen.
2 of the major areas that need to be documented:
1) Pre-sale / pre-install description of the theme or plugin
2) After the install – How to use the theme or plugin
1) Pre-Sale / Pre-install For Themes & Plugins
When I sit with beginning users as they browse through the multitude of themes, they inevitably have questions that theme descriptions simply don’t address. This makes the process feel like Russian roulette. Even as an experienced WordPress user, there are some things that even I can’t determine until the theme has been purchased and installed. This does not inspire much confidence and makes it hard to recommend buying a theme if it’s unclear whether it will do what the person needs.
Details of the theme and plugin features need to be SPELLED OUT in detail. Do not leave anything to the imagination.
Users want to know exactly what they are getting, how it will work and what options they will have.
Some items to consider including in your pre-sale descriptions:
- Who is this theme / plugin for?
- Who is this theme / plugin NOT for?
- What can be customized via the admin settings page?
- What cannot be customized via the admin and would require CSS?
- Provide screenshots of all the options and the front end output where applicable (to show how a widget looks, for example)
- How is support provided?
- What documentation is included?
- As much detail as possible, e.g. Does your theme require a user have an actual logo (i.e an image file)? Or is a text fallback available?
- Can the font colors and font family be changed?
- Demos are a must – provide a link to a demo of the theme or plugin
- Pay attention to the most common support questions you get and update your pre-sale information to answer those questions preemptively.
Organic Themes provides a “legend” for their themes that is free to view and provides a helpful way of understanding the layout of a theme. This is a really useful tool that a lot of themes could use, especially those with complex homepage layouts. Many questions I deal with from clients revolve around things as fundamental as getting the homepage set up.
Try to think like a user instead of a coder. I’ve seen many themes claim to be “easily customized” and what they really meant was “easily customized with CSS.” While CSS is easy for developers, this is not what users consider “easy.” They don’t want to touch CSS, FTP or pretty much anything outside of the WordPress admin.
If you do a good job in the pre-sale department, this will cut down on unnecessary support requests and irate customer feedback.
2) After The Install – How To Use The Theme or Plugin
In order for your themes and plugins to be widely adopted, you HAVE to provide instructions in a way your audience can understand. You should consider educating your audience to be part of your job description.
The more that regular people know about, understand, and appreciate your work, the more willing they will be to pay for it—and this allows you to build a more sustainable business model.
So documentation should be considered part of your business. If you hate doing it, partner with a non-developer who can help you document in a way that will help your user. Unfortunately it seems not to go without saying that you need to use language that is user-friendly and non-jargon. If in doubt, test out your documentation on a non-developer and get feedback.
Once users install a theme or plugin, they immediately want to start using it. They don’t want to have to leave the dashboard to read info or watch videos unless they really get stuck. So make sure that instructions for the plugin are located in the dashboard, on the settings screen for the plugin, or wherever is appropriate.
If your plugin is complex and has a great deal of instructions that are not suited to the dashboard display, then clearly link out to an external website for that info from within the dashboard. I’ve seen some plugin developers put their instructions in the readme file in the plugin itself. That’s just not going to work for regular users who wouldn’t even know to look there.
The experience after the plugin is installed is very important in communicating everything the user needs. Any needed information should be surfaced inside the WordPress interface somewhere. Users should not be left stranded after installing a plugin because the documentation for it is not easily accessible.
Pricing – Paying Is Good!
I’ve noticed an arc that sometimes happens in the WordPress experience. At first people are amazed that they can get all these themes, plugins and software for free.
But how does anyone make money?
It’s free? Wow!!
After a certain period of time sometimes people become a little too complacent about getting things for free and don’t like having to pay for premium themes, plugins and so forth.
The bottom line is that developers are providing amazing tools for you to build your business with at a fraction of the cost that it would be if you had someone custom create it just for you.
WordPress developers need to have sustainable business models so that developers can continue to improve, update and support their products and your use of them. If their models are not sustainable, your plugins will break and if you build your business around it, it will be a major problem for you.
If you are a blogger just doing it for fun, then by all means stick with free stuff—but tip your developer if he/she provides free support. Show your appreciation and support the products that you want to stick around.
It’s a little bit like voting—you don’t get to complain when something goes wrong if you didn’t get involved in the process to begin with.
Don’t be lazy! Take Responsibility for Your Own Learning
The developer of a theme or plugin is responsible only for the experience you have with that theme or plugin. They are not responsible for you understanding how WordPress works at a basic level—that is your responsibility. Do not ask your general WordPress questions on a theme or plugin-specific support forum. That’s not their purpose.
There are tons of resources, both free and paid (Meetups, online communities, videos, blog posts, training courses, consultants, etc.), for learning WordPress. There are several excellent Facebook groups (OC WordPress, Advanced WordPress, WordPress Help, WordPress For The Non-Technical) dedicated to answering questions at various levels of WordPress knowledge.
Google is your best friend. Whatever the problem is you are having, there’s a 98% chance someone else has had that problem as well and someone somewhere has written a blog post explaining exactly what to do.
You can’t jump into WordPress and expect there to be no learning curve—we all go through it. Although there is a mythology around WordPress that it’s “so easy a child can do it,” you are, at the end of the day, building a website—which can be a complex thing. It requires time, attention and maintenance, i.e. work!
As the website owner, you assume that responsibility whether you like it or not. If you don’t like it, there are people you can pay to assume it for you ;).
Ask For Help In A Helpful Way
Whether you are posting on a forum, a Facebook group, or emailing your developer or consultant, there are helpful and unhelpful ways to go about it. You’re more likely to get help if you follow some basic guidelines:
Have you tried to help yourself first?
A common problem in groups I’m in is that new members ask basic questions which have been answered so many times that people are tired of answering them. A simple search in the group or on Google would reveal the answer immediately.
If you have tried a few things, let people know what you have tried first so that you don’t get redundant advice, and it lets people know that you have made some effort yourself.
Describe your problem in detail and provide a visual. In order for someone to help you they may need to replicate the problem themselves—what steps would someone take to encounter the problem? Is there a specific error message you are seeing?
Copy/paste it. Is there a url you can provide where the problem can be seen. If not, provide a screenshot (Skitch is a free tool). Don’t be vague and expect people to read your mind. Panic-stricken “It doesn’t work!” or “It broke my site” are not helpful and won’t get you the support you need.
Give, don’t just take
As a new user you might not think you have anything to give back to the community. But when you ask for help in a public place, it’s very helpful to others if you report back and let people know whether the solution worked, or if you resolved your problem another way.
This helps build more resources for other users who may come after you, and gives back to the community in the open source spirit. At a minimum, at least say “thanks!”
I would love to get the input of both developers and users. Please leave a comment if I’ve missed something!
Lucy Beer helps individuals and businesses learn WordPress for their specific needs. Lucy helps non-techies understand and use the web to empower their personal or business mission with her WordPress training company, Web Training Wheels.